Trip to the Dome
Rivoli Theater, Muncie, Indiana – My January, 1987 photographic mission continues: After photographing the main auditorium, lobbies, upstairs, backstage, and the basement…it was time to take a trip up into the attic and explore the Rivoli’s impressive ceiling dome…
As a child, and later as an adult, I had often looked up at the Rivoli’s ceiling dome and wondered…how high was it? How was it illuminated? Could you walk inside it? How was it constructed? Did it serve any other purpose other than decoration and illumination? Many questions- but for me and nearly every other person that visited the Rivoli during its 60 year history – the questions had always remained unanswered. However, during the Rivoli’s final hours, I was about to join the ranks of a very small number of people who had actually climbed inside the dome….
Tom Ratliff, the Rivoli’s assistant manager, led the way over to an exit near the stage and along the west wall of the auditorium. We entered an access room which contained this ladder leading to the attic of the Rivoli. Up we went, Tom with a flashlight and me with my trusty Nikons and camera bag.
Half way up to the attic we stopped at an intermediate floor. Tom explained that this room was the home of the pipes for the $25,000 Wurlitzer organ installed for its opening in 1927. More about the fate of the organ will be explained in an upcoming blog post!
The curtained exit at the bottom left side of this picture is where Tom and I started our journey into the attic. Directly above is the area that formerly housed the Rivoli’s organ pipes, known as the organ chamber. The perforated decorative panels allowed the sound to penetrate into the theater.
Tom and I climbed another section of the iron ladder to reach the attic. This view is looking down, into the area that formerly housed the Rivoli’s organ pipes. Note the perforated sound panel on the left side of the picture. We are now standing in the attic of the Rivoli.
Tom leads the way across a wooden walkway spanning the Rivoli’s attic. To the left you can see the wall that separates the attic from the stage area. To the right, you can see ductwork leading to the rising shape of the ceiling dome enclosure.
The ceiling dome enclosure, covered with insulating material, is visible to my right. Hundreds of cables, attached to the Rivoli’s framework, are attached to the ceiling and dome. I marveled that all of this was constructed 60 years before..and that only a few people had ever ventured into this area during the intervening years.
This view is looking downward at the northeast corner of the attic…where the ceiling did not extend all the way to the exterior wall. This opening extended all the way down to the basement, and was part of the Rivoli’s fresh air ventilation system. During the demolition of the Rivoli a worker was seriously injured while removing asbestos…several people have theorized that this was the spot the worker fell into.
Tom informs me that this is it…the entrance to the dome. I said “What? I’m supposed to crawl through that?” Note the light bulbs and the flexible conduit that is attached to the worklights that hang inside the dome. The worklights were never turned on when patrons were in the theater, they were used during cleanup and maintenance times.
Tom demonstrates that the entry is passable. Note the wooden walkway below his legs, revealed where the insulation has been pushed aside. It is similar (but wider) than the crawlway inside the dome.
Another view of Tom accessing the interior of the Rivoli’s ceiling dome from the attic access point. We are on the East side of the dome. Tom is facing the West side of the theater, the stage is on his right. OK, now its my turn to squeeze into the dome entrance!
I crawled through the narrow opening and partially out onto a wooden ‘crawlway’ which I could see encircling the interior of the dome. My first was view looking nearly straight down into the theater. The worklight is illuminated and hanging in the right side of the photo. Some modern day heating/cooling ducts are visible on the front edge of the balcony. Not sure who that is walking up the aisle…
Here’s a view from below looking up at the dome…the circle denotes the area where I was hanging over the edge of the dome perimeter and taking photos. Note the worklight hanging down, the same light that appears in the previous photo.
After I entered the dome opening, I turned right and this is what I saw. A narrow, wooden catwalk running around the interior of the dome. To change the light bulbs that illuminated the dome, Rivoli workers would crawl along this structure. I estimated that if I were to crawl on my hands and knees, my shoulder would rub on the dome ceiling to the right. It was very, very cramped! Not to mention the thought of being 50 feet or so above the floor below and supported only by these ancient boards and plaster….hmmmm!
Later, during the demolition process, I was able to take this photo of the edge of the dome. The bottom of the picture is the inside edge of the dome, the area that I peered over to take my pictures while up there. Looking up from below, one of the round decorative fixtures has been removed, and the superstructure above is revealed. Note the wooden boards that were the catwalk surface. The wooden catwalk is suspended by another board bolted to a metal beam. The rounded lip on each side of the wooden crawlway is plaster.
Needless to say, I declined to venture out onto the catwalk, instead I perched with my elbows on the wooden walkway while my behind remained firmly wedged into the dome opening. This view is looking straight ahead. The decorative center of the dome serves as part of the Rivoli’s ventilation system. To the left, you can see other vents that are part of the air handling system.
The red balcony seats are original, installed in 1927 and rearranged in 1968 to provide more legroom. In this picture you can see seven rows of balcony seats; according to an original seating chart there were 15 rows in the balcony in 1927. They were very narrow and somewhat uncomfortable. During the 1968 renovation, the main floor seating was replaced with the present-day blue seats, which were wider and more padded than their predecessors.
My final image from the dome. This was a truly incredible moment. Thanks Tom, for making this possible! I’m not sure why I chose only to shoot black and white images, in retrospect it was probably because the lighting was so poor, and I didn’t have any high speed color film with me. The entire space below is being illuminated by the diffuse reflected dome lighting plus two 250W worklights. Not much light for this large a space, especially to hand-hold while perched on a narrow catwalk so high up!